“This is an amazing venue. I’m really proud of everyone in the Glendale organization for everything they’ve done. Fantastic event that they put on tonight. As unfortunate as it is for us, this is the type of stuff that the MLR needs. Really well done to everyone at Glendale.” Rugby United New York scrum-half Mike Petri on Friday night’s atmosphere at Infinity Park.
I returned back to the Mile High City after consuming probably the match of the year between the Seawolves and the Gold last Sunday evening at Starfire Sports Stadium in Seattle for what was likely going to be another great match between the Glendale Raptors and Rugby United New York on Friday night. With each team fighting for playoff positioning in the table, I had a feeling the crowd at Infinity Park was going to be in for a good one.
That’s exactly what happened. Both the Raptors and RUNY played solid rugby and Glendale squeaked out a victory to keep them in the mix for a playoff spot as the season winds down.
It was an entertaining match, but Infinity Park was buzzing long before the Raptors and RUNY kicked off. That’s because the United States Women’s Eagles squared off with Barbarian F.C. in a match that kicked off the evening.
The Eagles battled back from a 17-point deficit in the second half and took a late lead before conceding a try in the final minute of the match and coming up on the wrong end of a 34-33 result. It was a great match that the crowd at Infinity Park ate up.
Dozens of young girls poured out onto the pitch to play two flag rugby matches during halftime of the Eagles – Barbarians match. Their parents lined the touch-line turned in-goals to take pictures and cheer on their daughters as they slashed in for tries. There were a lot of smiles at Infinity Park on Friday evening.
Petri couldn’t have summed up the evening any better. This is what the MLR needs because rugby is a game for everyone.
Between the crowd, the Eagles and the Barbarians, the flag rugby at halftime and the MLR match, Friday was a great day for North American rugby.
One of the people on hand for both matches on Friday night was former Eagle and current CBS Sports broadcaster Dan Power. I had the pleasure of chatting with Power over the weekend about his thoughts on the season to this point and what he expects to see moving forward in our conversation below:
What is your overall impression of Year 2 of Major League Rugby to this point of the season?
“It’s great. I’ve really been impressed with the way teams have kind of looked at Year 1. It’s always tough, right? The first year. It’s an unknown. With the exception of Glendale, there were no clubs that existed before 2018. So everyone was kind of doing this new for the first time. There were some surprises. Good surprises like Seattle. What a great surprise that has been. They win year 1. They sell out their games. They’ve become engrained up in the Seattle sports scene up there. It’s incredible. Every time I go and do a game in Seattle it’s getting bigger and bigger. People in the airport know what you’re there for. The hotel, they know. It’s just growing so quickly up there it’s been great. Also, on the field, looking at the other teams, how they have responded to what Seattle did in Year 1. So dominant in their set piece and that defense, all the teams were responsive. They went out and they found great players. Paddy Ryan down in San Diego has been outstanding and it’s no surprise that the Legion are doing so well this year with a guy like that there.”
What has been the biggest improvement between Year 1 and Year 2?
“There has been a few. I would say a lot of the teams have had now, this will be two full years of full-time coaching. I think you are starting to see a lot of the systems and a lot of the styles of play. We saw an immediate effect last year when the national team beat Scotland. I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that a majority of that side were playing MLR last year. If they weren’t, I don’t think they are as confident in those pressure moments against Scotland as they were. I think we are starting to see just the basic skill level and the systems that the coaches are putting in place in a lot of the teams are starting to show in Year 2. It’s just the professionalism that, for years people have always said that if the U.S. gets professional rugby and gets serious then it’s going to be everyone else playing for second place. We’re not quite there yet, but we are getting their quicker than we’ve ever got there before. It’s been impressive.”
Is there a particular team you’ve been impressed by so far?
“San Diego has impressed me with how reactive they were in the offseason with the squad they’ve put together. Rob Hoadley is a fascinating guy. He’s got a very refreshing philosophy on rugby. Not only as a game but the way it should be played and the way he wants his players to improve themselves not only as players but the way he wants them to improve themselves as humans too. It’s an infectious culture. San Diego this year, I would’ve loved playing for that team. They’ve been really impressive. I have a lot of time for Seattle too. Shane Skinner, Adrian Balfour and those guys up there. They’ve got a great vision and they’re all in on it. From top to bottom, they’re all kind of pulling in the same direction. They really all believe in what they’re doing and that’s why I think they sell out. New York is new, and I think James Kennedy and his crew are going to do great things out there. I think Year 2 before we really see big things in New York.”
Is there a player that isn’t receiving the love that they should to this point of the season?
“Two guys. I’d go Paddy Ryan in San Diego. I know he makes Team of the Week all the time, but he’s never been Player of the Week. I think that’s overdue with the effect he’s had on that team. Last year, their scrum was embarrassing. I think that’s why they went out and signed this guy. I think he’s outstanding. I think a guy who is really just that tradesmen, a really blue-collar player, doesn’t really seek the accolades, doesn’t do the flashy things but is just a hard worker is Brad Tucker up in Seattle. I love Brad Tucker. Brad Tucker is the first guy I’m picking every week if I’m picking a team. Him and Paddy Ryan. J.P. Eloff down in NOLA. I think he’s had a great year and I really hope that he’s involved in the summer series for the USA at least to give him a shot to get to the World Cup. He may not make it this time around, but I think he deserves a shot. I’ll go one more because he’ll get angry if I don’t mention him. Big Lou Stanfill. He retires in 2015 and kind of feels like he’s Rocky Balboa. A little bit of junk in the basement, he’s like, ‘I’ve got to get out and empty the tank and play’ and goes out and he’s back in the World Cup squad as well. I think he deserves a little bit of praise because he’s been outstanding down there as well.”
Do you have a beat on who’s going to make the playoff?
“I change my mind almost every weekend. If you would’ve asked me this before that game (Seattle Seawolves at Toronto Arrows on 4/28), my answer would’ve been totally different. I talk a lot with another one of the CBS guys in Pete Steinberg, and we talk quite a bit about this all the time. He’s always said that he feels Toronto, if they can find a good rhythm, can make a run into the finals. They are built to play finals rugby. They’re going win, loss, win, loss all year and it wasn’t really working out for them but now they’ve got two wins in a row. I think Toronto could sneak in into fourth. I think New Orleans, Seattle, San Diego, and that fourth spot really comes down to New York, Toronto and Glendale who got a win over New York on Friday night as well. It will be so fascinating to watch this down the stretch because it could be a win or a loss with some bonus points. If you lose by eight and miss a bonus point, it could literally come down to that. You go from a playoff to nothing. Your season is done. The hard thing for Glendale will be sitting at home in the last round. Every team has an opportunity to get points so they would have to be significantly clear in that playoff picture otherwise I could see them getting jumped there in that last week.”
Do you want to give your way too early pick for the Final?
“Way too early? Right now I think San Diego gets there. If they’re healthy, I don’t see anyone beating them. Best defense in the league and now with Mikey Te’o, Ryan Matyas back, Joe Pietersen’s healthy and that back row is so impressive. (Jasa) Veremalua, (Psalm) Wooching, (Jordan) Manihera. That’s a dynamic back row. They are very fit, they’re fast, they’re young. They’ve already shown some championship mettle when they were up in Seattle. Red card, yellow card, Pietersen’s gone with a head knock and they dug in and held onto that lead and won that game. I think Starfire is probably the toughest place to win. It’s really hard to go out there and they did that under really tough duress. They’ve impressed me a lot. I don’t know the second one.”
Is there anything in particular that you’re looking for or that you’d like to see moving into Year 3?
“As long as the quality of the games keep improving, I think we are trending in the right direction. With three more teams coming in, there is always that fear of player pool dilution and that’s going to be a thing to address but the smart thing is they are coming into markets that have strong rugby. Boston is always strong with the Wolfhounds and there’s a lot of college rugby up there in the Northeast so there’s a funnel there. D.C. is the same. It’s probably not known as being a super rugby area like a Northern California or a New York, it’s not as well-known as that but I think they’ve got a lot of talent there that’s untapped. I like the ownership group at D.C. as well. I think they’ve got a really good vision there and I know the guys doing Atlanta. James Walker and Paul Holmes, those guys don’t lose very often so I imagine they are going to be really competitive as well. They have a pretty good pipeline through Tiger Rugby globally to a player pool. Indirectly, I think unintentionally, through Tiger Rugby they basically have a decade of scouting that other teams didn’t have when they started. I’m really excited to see the three teams come in and I don’t think it should dilute, but that would be the only thing that would concern me if we start to see an injury toll and all of a sudden quality starts to drop but I’m not anticipating that happening.”